United States: Toward Uncharted Waters – The CVS-Aetna Merger

Last Updated: June 21 2019
Article by James J. Tierney

On June 4 – 5, 2019, Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held an extraordinary and unprecedented evidentiary hearing to decide whether to enter the proposed Final Judgment in U.S. v. CVS/Aetna requiring the divestiture of Aetna's Medicare Part D business. Judge Leon has been highly critical of DOJ's proposed remedy and has disrupted long-established DOJ practices to resolve competitive concerns in merger cases. A decision to reject the Division's proposed remedy would upend established law, interfere with DOJ's ability to negotiate merger settlements, and create uncertainty in DOJ's merger enforcement program.

Procedural History

Following an 11-month investigation, the Antitrust Division on October 10, 2018 filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin CVS Health Corporation's $69 billion acquisition of Aetna, Inc. The complaint alleged the transaction would substantially lessen competition for the sale of individual prescription drug plans ("individual PDPs") in 16 regions in the U.S. Individual PDPs provide Medicare beneficiaries with insurance coverage for their prescription drugs (Medicare Part D). To address the harm alleged in the Complaint, the Division filed a proposed Final Judgment that required CVS to divest Aetna's nationwide individual PDP business to WellCare Health Plans, Inc.

When settling an antitrust case, DOJ must comply with the Tunney Act, which establishes various procedures the parties must follow, after which the settlement can be submitted to the court to determine whether entry of the proposed Final Judgment "is in the public interest."1 Consistent with standard Tunney Act practice, Judge Leon entered an order permitting the parties to close their transaction and requiring CVS to hold separate Aetna's individual PDP business until the assets are divested to WellCare. Pursuant to Judge Leon's order, the parties closed their transaction on November 28, 2018, and two days later completed the divestiture to WellCare.

Despite having authorized the parties to close the transaction, Judge Leon became concerned the status quo would not be preserved in the event he subsequently concluded the proposed Final Judgment would not be in the public interest. Judge Leon was very critical of the proposed remedy, which he said involved "about one-tenth of one percent" of the value of the transaction. He also expressed concern that the proposed Final Judgement failed to address potential harm in the market for pharmacy benefit management ("PBM") services. PBM providers manage pharmacy benefits for health plans and negotiate their drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and retail pharmacies. Specifically, Judge Leon wanted to preserve the option to reject the proposed Final Judgment if he found that DOJ, in failing to allege harm in the PBM market, had drafted the Complaint so narrowly as "to make a mockery of judicial power."2

Judge Leon ordered the parties to explain why CVS should not be required to hold Aetna separate and insulate the management of the two companies during the pendency of the Tunney Act process. DOJ vigorously objected that the court did not have the power to consider possible harm in the PBM market because the complaint did not allege harm in the PBM market and the record before the court did not implicate the judicial mockery standard. Ultimately, CVS diffused the issue when it voluntarily agreed to stop further integration efforts and to preserve the status quo by operating Aetna's health insurance business as a separate unit from CVS's businesses.

The Tunney Act requires the publication of the proposed Final Judgment followed by a 60-day public comment period. DOJ received 173 comments about the proposed settlement, many criticizing the remedy. DOJ filed its response to the public comments on February 13, 2019. It concluded that the proposed Final Judgment provides an effective and appropriate remedy for the antitrust violation alleged in the Complaint and is therefore in the public interest. Thereafter, the Division filed a motion requesting that Judge Leon enter the proposed Final Judgment.

Tunney Act Hearing

In most Tunney Act proceedings, courts make their public interest determination based on the Complaint, the terms of the proposed Final Judgment, public comments, and DOJ's response to the public comments. In rare cases, the court will consider argument from the parties and on very rare occasions will hear from other interested parties. Here, Judge Leon accepted briefs opposing the remedy filed by amici curiae the American Medical Association, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Consumer Action and U.S. PIRG. In an unprecedented move, Judge Leon ordered a hearing to take live testimony from witnesses presented by the amici and the parties. In connection with the ordered hearing, Judge Leon directed the parties and amici to submit lists of witnesses and a summary of their testimony and issued the following rulings concerning the conduct of the hearing:

  • From the list submitted by the amici, Judge Leon selected three witnesses: an economic expert, the President of the American Antitrust Institute and the Chief Medical Officer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
  • From the CVS list, Judge Leon selected CVS's economic expert, Aetna's Vice President of its Medicare Part D business and CVS's Chief Transformation Officer.
  • Judge Leon refused to hear testimony from DOJ's economic expert and WellCare's Executive Vice President of Clinical Operations and Business Development.
  • Judge Leon ordered that witnesses will not be subject to cross-examination and there would be no opening and closing arguments.
  • Judge Leon overruled DOJ's objection that the proposed hearing procedures gave the amici the ability to frame the issues and denied the DOJ from meaningful participation in the proceedings.

Over the two-day hearing, Judge Leon heard testimony from the amici's expert witnesses that WellCare is not a suitable divestiture buyer because: (i) WellCare does not have Aetna's brand recognition, (ii) WellCare will be dependent on CVS to provide PBM services and (iii) the divestiture itself raises concentration levels in several regions. Judge Leon also heard testimony from two amici witnesses that the merger raises vertical competitive concerns. By combining CVS's thousands of pharmacies and 92 million PBM members with Aetna's 22 million insurance customers, the merged firm will have a greater ability and incentive to deny its PBM services to rival health plans or raise the prices for its PBM services to rival plans. After the two-day hearing, Judge Leon indicated that he would accept final briefs and hear closing arguments next month.

What's Next

The CVS/Aetna merger entered murky waters some months ago and is now headed toward uncharted waters. Pressuring merging parties to hold the two companies separate while the Tunney Act process plays out is unnecessary and unwarranted. Nothing in the Tunney Act bars the parties from consummating their merger, and consumers may be harmed by delaying integration activities that may generate efficiencies. Nor does closing prevent DOJ from obtaining additional relief if necessary. Parties that close before the settlement receives final approval by the court bear the risk the proposed remedy is not in the public interest and therefore may have to make additional concessions to obtain court approval. The Tunney Act evidentiary hearing was also highly unusual and did not give DOJ a fair opportunity to defend its settlement. In particular, DOJ had no cross-examination rights and no opportunity to offer expert testimony to rebut the testimony from the amici's expert. Also unusual was Judge Leon's decision to reject testimony from WellCare, even though the amici challenged WellCare's suitability as a divestiture buyer.

The CVS/Aetna proceeding highlights a tension in the Tunney Act. Judge Leon's public interest determination is limited by binding D.C. Circuit precedent U.S. v. Microsoft. Under Microsoft, DOJ has considerable discretion to settle antitrust cases and the court's review is limited to reviewing the proposed remedy in relationship to the allegations in the complaint. A Tunney Act court does not have the authority to inquire into matters outside the scope of the complaint. Judge Leon clearly bristles at playing such a limited role. At a November 29, 2018 status hearing, Judge Leon said that he would not take a "rubber stamp" approach to approving the proposed Final Judgment. Judge Leon's May 13, 2019 order regarding the Tunney Act hearing noted that Microsoft authorized a Tunney Act court to reject a settlement that makes a "mockery of judicial power." The court's actions clearly suggest that DOJ's failure to allege and remedy harm in the PBM market may satisfy the "judicial mockery" standard.

It remains to be seen if Judge Leon, based on a two-day hearing, will second-guess DOJ's decision that the merger will not harm competition in the PBM market. Given controlling authority in the D.C. Circuit and the irregularities in the Tunney Act proceeding, Judge Leon may conclude his only option is to enter the proposed Final Judgement. If, on the other hand, he rejects the proposed Final Judgment for failing to address concerns outside the scope of the Complaint, he will likely be overruled by the D.C. Circuit.

Footnotes

1 The Antitrust Procedures and Penalties Act, 15 U.S.C. §§16(b)-(h).

2 U.S. v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1462 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

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